‘Dead’ General Alive? Former North Korean Head Of Army Believed Executed, Turns Up On State Media

Ri Yong-gil, a North Korean general and former military chief who was supposedly executed earlier this year, appears to be alive, North Korean state media said on Tuesday.

Ri was named by the Wall Street Journal as being among the officers and central military commission members present during the congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which ended Monday. The Journal noted that North’s Korea’s main newspaper also published photos of Ri. South Korean intelligence had reported the general executed on corruption charges back in February, even alleging the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has personally presided over his execution.

Now, it seems the South Korean government has not only been forced to admit he is alive, but Ri seems to be in possession of several new senior posts following the congress, including being appointed a member of the Central Committee of the WPK and an alternate member of the Politburo. He is also on the Central Military Commission. The news marks a serious intelligence failure on the part of South Korea.

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This is not the first time the Republic of Korea (ROK) has reported inaccurate information about its rival to the north. In a similar case early last year, South Korean told media that Ma Won-chun, a general and senior architect who had been charged with the renovation of the Pyongyang airport, had been killed or purged. But after an 11-month absence, General Ma accompanied Kim Jong-un on a visit to the newly reconstructed village.

North Korean officials periodically disappear from the public eye only to emerge months later, usually after rumors and reports of their execution. This time, faulty information caused ROK media to report the killing of one of the country’s top leadership, as the New York Times reported.

“General Ri had been chief of the North Korean Army’s general staff, the third-ranking figure in the army’s hierarchy, when his name abruptly stopped appearing in state media reports in January. In February, South Korean intelligence officials said General Ri had been executed, apparently the latest senior official to fall in a series of purges and executions that the North’s top leader, Kim Jong-un, has used to consolidate power.”

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Even professional spies encounter difficulty operating in one of the world’s most secretive governments, and such reports cannot be independently confirmed, as North Korea rarely gives state media coverage to the execution of top officials. The Times noted that the rumors of General Ri’s state-sponsored death began to unravel in March, when MBN, a South Korean cable channel, reported he had only been demoted and not executed. Photos of Ri released by North Korean state media showing him wearing a three-star insignia instead of his usual four stars seem to corroborate this theory.

The false report seems to have been based on his brief disappearance in February, when he missed two key national meetings, according to Fox News.

“Kim has reportedly overseen a series of killings, purges and dismissals since he took power in late 2011, part of what foreign experts call an attempt to tighten his grip on power. The South’s report on Ri’s execution seemed to be bolstered later in February when Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency confirmed Ri had lost his job by describing someone else as chief of the North Korean military’s general staff.”

Ri had not appeared in the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) since, until the reports Tuesday announcing those awarded important positions during the party congress in Pyongyang, the first of its kind in 36 years. Seoul’s Unification Ministry confirmed the authenticity of the state media photos and videos of Ri from the congress on Tuesday.

[Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]